To Be (Anonymous) or Not to Be (Anonymous): Women in Technology


“I know, rationally, that random insults are exactly that,” says Grace. “But I still find it hard to brush off. Maybe I’ll grow that thick skin, but I don’t feel that the onus should be on me to do so.””

“The first rule is: try to avoid pronouns.” A tall order, especially when it comes to the basic act of writing. And taller still given that Brittany (whose full name and publication she wishes to remain anonymous) has worked in editorial media for several years. “I mean, of course you end up using them. But if it’s on Reddit or The Guardian online—anything with comments or feedback—it’s the same: you’re going to get shit if readers figure out you’re female.”

Since the internet’s explosion into the mainstream, the idea of harassment has been thrown into the same semantic cyber-danger pot as “chatroom predators,” “identity theft,” and “Craigslist personals”. But as online experiences which have long been solitary become increasingly community-based, receiving abuse via interactive technology has become, it would seem, a given—and widely-absorbed into women’s online routines.

“Even the most explicit online mud-slinging is easy to kind of ignore or just not internalize. But there’s this feeling, from everyone from the readers to the active commenters to your real, flesh and blood editors, that if you get creepy responses, you were sort of just asking for it– just by mentioning you’re female, or offering a ‘female’ perspective on something that doesn’t have an exclusively female following.” – Kim Pittman

Kim Pittman is a level-designer for Toys For Bob, an Activision studio based in northern California. In addition to working in the game industry, she is herself an avid gamer: “I got into gaming because of my mother and my brother,” she says. “My first conscious memory is of a video-game. I’ve always played them. It was just a family thing at my house.”

Pittman studied at the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, which has offered an accelerated graduate program in video-game development since 2003. “As a designer, it’s kind of my job to study new games. So I try to spend thirty minutes to an hour every day playing something new: everything from Facebook games to iPhone games to Xbox 360 games. But most of what I play for my own pleasure – not deconstructing anything – is World of Warcraft.”

Blizzard Entertainment’s massive multi-player online game World of Warcraft has gained notoriety in the past decade for its die-hard, often socially reclusive fans, coupled with massive commercial success. But Pittman remains conscious of the stigma attached to advertising gender within its gameplay. “You do not share the fact that you’re female,” she states. “Despite the fact that I play solely female characters, everyone assumes that you’re male. And when you play these games, you just let people assume you’re male, because it’s easier. You don’t have to worry about ‘creepies’, you don’t have to worry about people ‘falling in love with you’ – it’s just easier. Then when you get to know people, eventually you reveal yourself. You can say ‘Well, you know, I’m not really a guy,’ and then you have to combat the initial disbelief. People think you’re just trying to get something out of them. I actually played with a guild in World of Warcraft for over a year, and we finally got a vent server and were suddenly all like ‘Oh God, you really are a girl!’ I’m just said, ‘I’ve been telling you that for over a year now!’ They didn’t believe me.”

A 2006 statistic from the Consumer Electronics Association revealed that women ages 25-34 were out-playing men in “casual” (non-console) games by 30%. Three years later, a Nielsen report would find that women over age 25 make up the largest constituency of gamers in the United States. And in the UK, women have been projected as made up 48% of World of Warcraft players. “It’s a little relieving to not be singled out as that odd girl doing something she shouldn’t be,” Pittman explains. “Video-games still have that kind of stigma – that they’re for children, or that they’re a waste of time. Over the years, as I’ve met more and more people, I’ve begun outing myself as an actual female. And more often than not speak with people you thought were male — and they’re not. Suddenly they’re like ‘Oh thank God, another woman!” and suddenly you build these friendships where you’re just clinging to each other like someone drowning clinging to their life-jacket.”

The irony and self-perpetuation of online anonymity is not lost on female gamers and new-media users. “I went to PAX — the Penny Arcade expo up in Seattle – and it was an eye-opener. Up til that point I saw myself as something of a unicorn,” a metaphor Pittman finds particularly apt, and returns to often, “being a female gamer. At something like that there are going to be thousands of other girls running around, just as nerdy as you, if not drastically more so. It kind of reached this point where I thought, OK, this isn’t abnormal; we shouldn’t be having to hide online, and this is unfair. I should be able to tell people I’m female and not expect crazy to come out of it.”

But out of this unsettling trend has come comfort in the form of the ever-useful screenshot: FatUglyOrSlutty.com, launched early this year, allows gamers to share the creepy, comical, inane, and often deeply disturbing feedback female gamers receive, most often via the chat functions in the World of Warcraft and Call of Duty franchises.

“I shared some of the messages I had received with GTZ [co-editor Grace*] and other friends,” explains Ashlee, a co-founder of FsoU, “and we were all laughing about them. I said something like, ‘Everyone is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut.’ GTZ said I should make my own site in which I just post all of the messages I get, and our friend Marcus suggested we call it FatUglyorSlutty.com. It started out as a joke, but we quickly realized it would be an awesome idea.”

One “whisper” reads: “wow retard r u on ur rag or somethin.” In a Call of Duty chat-log: “you fat fuckin tomboy go kill yourself.”

“I really like the fact that we’re taking away peoples’ anonymity,” says Jennifer, ie “OMGitsFEDAY,” the third of FUoS’ editors, “which I think is a huge reason why people think sending these kinds of messages is OK — because they can get away with it. Not anymore, suckers! And we’re also helping showcase an actual issue that many people don’t even realize happens, though it’s a part of life for any female who’s ever played an online game and had the audacity to reveal her gender.”

The site has received widespread media attention since its launch, including profiles in Kotaku and GamrFeed, and news aggregator Reddit, which launched an extensive discussion among both male and female gamers. One Reddit user contributed: “I never realized how bad it was until my girlfriend got into gaming. She started with L4D [Valve’s Left 4 Dead] on the 360. She would constantly get bombarded with disgusting voice messages and lewd comments. I’ve been playing online games for a long time and never experienced anything close to what she has to deal with. I’m not even talking about comments like ‘lol a gurl, get back in the kitchen’, I’m talking about extremely vile things. Like the little kid who voice messaged her that he was going to chop her up into little pieces and have sex with all the pieces. I mean, seriously?”

Like all areas of waking life, women in online media are caught somewhere between indignation and the frustration at having to be indignant: the distress of being targeted, and the backlash at discussing factors which still allow women to be targeted – particularly in ways which many view as vestigial of a time long past.

“I know, rationally, that random insults are exactly that,” says Grace. “But I still find it hard to brush off. Maybe I’ll grow that thick skin, but I don’t feel that the onus should be on me to do so.”

For Pittman, her history of harassment in gaming doesn’t begin and end in the digital world. Since entering the Guildhall in 2005, she has left an internship because of a co-worker’s obsessive behavior, and been asked by a previous studio’s human resources department to delineate her own definition of workplace sexual harassment (“because,” she explains “it wasn’t so much a question of if and by what circumstances it would happen, but when it would happen, and I think they wanted to be prepared”). She also shares a story about being kicked out of a guild by a female leader upon realizing that she—Pittman— was also a woman: “You know it’s funny, I’ve never encountered anything even remotely close to that in a game of Call of Duty. I played Team Fortress 2 quite a bit, and even in that it was like, ‘Oh you’re a girl? Big deal – HEAL ME!’”

“There is no reason we should have to hide our gender to play games,” says Jennifer. “I’m not going to go all Mulan and cut my hair, deepen my voice, and wrap my boobs. The comment we get a lot is: ‘Just don’t talk or let people know you’re a girl.’ And it’s bullshit. We shouldn’t have to hide. We like games, so get over it.”


Arianna Reiche is a writer dividing her time between the east and left coasts. Visit her online at www.ariannareiche.com.

one comment 
racial discrimination, Verbal

Hoda’s Story: You’re racism is not witty

Hi, I’m a Muslim girl and proud to be. I wear the hijab (head scarf) every wear I go and I have been told several offensive comments and this is one of one of the many encounters I’ve had with an Islamaphobe.
One day me and my friend were shopping at the mall and while we were walking to the next store we were walking by a man and his girlfriend and while we passed he stared at me and said “BOOM!” and him and his girlfriend started to laugh at us but we just ignored them and continued walking. I know that isn’t nearly as bad as it gets, I’ve known people who have been physically assaulted just because they were wearing a head scarf.
I really want to but a stop to this type of harassment and that’s why I’m here.

one comment 
News, The Movement

Argentine Turd Threatens Rape to Prove a Point

And we want him fired. From all the publications he works for. Since when are rape threats funny, clever, or intellectual? This douchelord obviously doesn’t have a clue. Check out our petition on Change.org and help us serve the consequences to this ignorant “journalist”. We have 1300 signatures so far—help us reach 2000.


Petitions by Change.org|Start a Petition »

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Assault, Verbal

Sara’s Story: The importance of standing up for yourself

#1: I was fifteen years old, crossing a busy street in a small town. A young man leaned out the back window of a slow-moving car and yelled: “I want to f**k you!” I stopped in the middle of the street and shouted back “Marry me, Captain Romance! I want to have your babies!” He peeled rubber.

#2: I was sixteen years old, riding the # 16 bus to the ferry terminal with friends. I was the last one off at our stop, a young man stood up in front of me and started pushing me toward the back of the bus. He put his hand between my legs and grabbed my pubis. I picked him up and threw him across the bus.

#3: I was twenty-eight, walking out of a bar with a friend. A strange man tried to grab my breast as I walked past him. I grabbed his hand, threw it at him, and kept walking. When I looked back, he was gaping at me like a clubbed fish.

There were many, many more of these sorts of incidents in my teens and twenties, these are my favorites because they ended well. The others ended with me slinking off feeling contaminated and afraid. But I do think that it is perfectly okay to fight back, to hit, kick, punch and bite, if someone puts unwanted hands on my person. So I celebrate those times when I remembered to stand up for myself in the heat of the moment. It’s important.

no comments 

Cathy’s Story: Not a blissful honeymoon

I was on my honeymoon with my husband RIGHT NEXT TO ME and some men approached and said they wanted to fuck me.

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groping, Verbal

Serenity Elizabeth’s Story: My night is none of your business

After a clumsy night with my friends that left bruises and scratches on my legs I was walking home with shorts on. An old man said “rough night,” pinched my butt and walked away.

one comment 

Offended’s Story: There’s no excuse for being a jerk

I was at a party with some sequined, tight pants on. I danced and was having fun, when a guy slapped my ass. I turned around, shocked. The guys behind me only shook his shoulders in refusal. Not only did it happen once, but many times during the night, by different guys. When I talked to a girl about this, all she said was “that’s just how guys act when they are drunk.”

I have never felt that humiliated in my life…

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groping, Verbal

Flora’s Story: Don’t hug me, creep.

As part of a mixed sixth-form in an all boys school, I’m used to demeaning comments and harassment in the corridors by immature 14 year olds – but there’s one guy who’s in my year. He constantly hugs the girls, which is OK if you’re close friends, but he hugs really tight and slightly too long. One time he smelt me while hugging me,despite the fact that I was clearly uncomfortable and was trying to step away. In addition to this he has made incredibly inappropriate comments to my boyfriend, ranging from so-called “compliments” about my appearance to “can I join in?” and “I want to j*zz in her mouth”. That’s right, he said that to my boyfriend. Everyone was incredibly awkward and I was simply freaked out – I barely knew him! We try to avoid him from now on, though he still forces hugs on me if he does see me.

public masturbation, Verbal

Sarmistha’s Story: Don’t tolerate idiocy

Today after I came out from the library one Turkish teenager passed a comment: “Wanna fuck!” I stopped there.  I wanted to take him to the police.  Three other friends joined him and started humiliating me.  He told me: “I am a gay…and I fuck him everyday!” (showing his friend to me). Everyone started laughing. When I left the place they shouted: “I wanna fuck you!”  I had this enough in my country. Why the fuck am I studying Gender?

My race, class, gender, ethnicity play major roles here in this context. How many times will I ignore this, how many time swill I just pretend that I didn’t hear?  My ex-landlord and flatmate started masturbating in front of me….. How many times do I have to tolerate this?

no comments 
Assault, demonstration, Verbal

Lena’s story: Harassment that turns to assault

A group of guys were in front of a corner store. I was walking down the street with my mom. I was about 17 years old. When we passed them, they called me out identifying me by what I had on. I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I had on baggy jeans and sneakers and a tee shirt. They started kissing and hissing at me asking me if they could walk with me and asking if I can have my number. I shook my head no and kept walking. They kept calling at me and I just ignored them. When I got about a block away one of em yelled out to me, called me a b*tch and threw a bottle at me!

The glass broke just near my feet and shattered near my mom and I. My mom wanted to go back and cuss them out but that wouldn’t have been a good idea since it was a group of them and there were only two of us. So we walked away.

Now I am in my 30s (though I look like Im in my 20s) and I still deal with Harassment. Nobody has thrown a bottle at me but I still get hissed at, kissed at and cat called. I have even had my hand grabbed on different occasions. What is wrong with people!? I dont get why people feel so comfortable invading peoples personal space and being disrespectful. Then when you tell them not to touch you or to leave you alone, they get mad like YOU did something wrong.

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